The health focus these days is on preventing the “big three” – heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. No wonder, these are among the most common diseases that shorten our lifespan. Yet there’s another diverse group of diseases that can jeopardize your health and even lead to death. This group of diseases is referred to as autoimmune diseases. Would you believe that between 5% and 8% of the population has some type of autoimmune condition? That’s a lot of people.
Autoimmune diseases include more than 100 distinct health problems, such as autoimmune thyroid disease, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and more. You’ve probably heard to most of them and may have even had one yourself. Autoimmune thyroid disease is especially common in women.
In general, women suffer more from autoimmune diseases than men at a ratio of almost 2 to 1. No one knows exactly why autoimmune diseases affect women more often than men, although hormonal differences are a factor. Genetics, too, play a role in who develops autoimmune problems, although these diseases are also relatively common in people with no family history.
Diet and Autoimmune Diseases
You might wonder what role diet plays in triggering the onset of autoimmune disorders? According to research published in the journal Autoimmunity Reviews, a diet high in processed foods may be a factor. Autoimmune diseases are on the rise and are now one of the top ten causes of death for women of all ages. So, anything we can do to prevent them is a game changer.
Could the popularity of processed foods be a factor in the rise of autoimmune disorders? Researchers from Germany and Israel collaborated on a study that looked at the impact processed and packaged foods have on the digestive tract. What you might not realize is 70% of your immune system lies in your gut. This component of your immune system is critical for protecting your intestinal tract against foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. The bacteria that make their home your small intestines, known as your gut microbiome, helps modulate the immune activity in your intestinal tract.
What the researchers found is processed foods weaken your small intestine’s resistance against hostile invaders, and as they point out, this increases the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. The way processed foods could do this, based on this research, is by damaging the thin tissue that lines your small intestinal tract. Because your small intestines absorb nutrients, the barrier that separates the small intestines from the bloodstream is ultra-thin, as little as one cell thick.
Cells in the intestinal tract are separated from each other by super-small tight junctions that open up to selectively allow nutrients to enter the bloodstream. It’s a very delicate situation and the tight junctions in the intestinal tract can be easily damaged. When damaged, components of the food you eat can slip between the areas of damage and enter your bloodstream. This is referred to as “leaky gut.” As food components enter the bloodstream, your immune system does the job it’s trained to do – mount an attack. Unfortunately, this attack can also damage normal tissue, what we call an autoimmune reaction or a reaction against “self.”
What does this have to do with processed foods? Researchers in this study found certain components of processed foods appear to damage the tight junctions that separate cells in the intestinal tract, making it easier for food components to make it out of the digestive tract and into the bloodstream. What are these foods components? Sugar and sodium are two most of us are familiar with but also certain organic acids, emulsifiers, gluten, microbial transglutaminase, and nanoparticles in processed foods.
It’s possible that not all of these food components are damaging to everyone’s gut. For example, if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten may damage your small intestinal tract but may not be a problem for those who don’t have this sensitivity.
Autoimmune Disease and Salt
What about sodium? Salt is one of the most ubiquitous additives in processed foods, and the link between autoimmune disease and a high-salt diet is growing. In a study carried out in mice, researchers found that when the rodents ate a high-sodium diet, it increased the production of immune cells called T-helper cells. That is a good thing if you’re fighting off an infection but not so good if you have an autoimmune disease or susceptibility to one. Some of the mice in this study that ate a high-sodium diet went on to develop an autoimmune disease, a mouse version of multiple sclerosis. A recent study published in the journal Nature found high sodium diets are a driving force behind autoimmune disease, although more research is needed in humans.
Other Components in Processed Foods
Another component you find in many packaged products are emulsifiers, additives that add texture and thickness to products and prolong their shelf life. Based on some studies, emulsifiers may contribute to autoimmune diseases in another way – by altering gut bacteria. Remember how we said gut bacteria help regulate the portion of the immune system that lies in the gut?
A study carried out at Georgia State University in mice showed emulsifiers alter gut bacteria as well as widen the tight junctions that help keep food components from leaking out of the intestinal tract and into the bloodstream. They are also linked to intestinal inflammation in mice as well as inflammatory bowel disease. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re harmful to human guts but it certainly raises red flags.
Check Your Vitamin D Level
Another dietary component that seems to play a role in autoimmune disease is vitamin D, a hormone-like vitamin that impacts immune function. Studies show people who have a low vitamin D level are a greater risk for certain autoimmune diseases, particularly multiple sclerosis. Know what your vitamin D level is by having your doctor check it. Having an adequate one is important to your health.
The Bottom Line
Now you have another reason to avoid processed foods, especially if you have a family history of an autoimmune disorder or if you have one yourself. Whole, unprocessed foods supply the nutrition your body needs without additives like salt, sugar, emulsifiers, and other questionable additives.
Medical News Today. “Could processed foods raise the risk of autoimmune diseases?”
Ask Doctor Maxwell. “Processed Food Is Now Officially Linked To Autoimmune Disorders”
Nature. 2013 Apr 25;496(7446):518-22. doi: 10.1038/nature11868. Epub 2013 Mar 6.
American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. “Autoimmune Statistics”
Autoimmunologist. “Emulsifiers and Autoimmune Disease”
Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology. Volume 35, Issue 3, August 2014, Pages 347-369
Science Daily. “Widely used food additives promotes colitis, obesity and metabolic syndrome, shows study of emulsifiers”
Autoimmunity Reviews. Volume 14, Issue 6, June 2015, Pages 479-489.
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